Thursday, February 24, 2005

A Life Gone By

My grandparents lived upstairs from us - 1 floor up - in an old-new house in the centre of the city. So much in the city that if we kept the windows open during the day, all the dust from the city blew in and settled inside the house, and we walked about in a layer of grime half an inch thick. Our house was on the main road, and if you stood on the verandah, you could count the cars going by (for every white car that went by, you got extra points). Or add up the numbers on their number plates to see who got the highest numbers. The noise was deafening - especially in those days, with that impossible traffic. So impossible that I have distinct memories of the family getting in the car one evening, trying to reverse the car out of the house (onto the main road), and eventually giving up after sitting in the car for two hours, driving the few feet back into the garage and going back upstairs, to where the noise and dust of the traffic still got us, but at least we could sit under the fan. Or shut out the world outside (starkly lit by fluorescent tubes, replaced over the years by sodium vapour lamps, soft and luminous) and watch my parents dance to Valentino Tangos or Burt Kaempfurt or Fausto Pappetti.

My grandfather was tall and dark and handsome (really). He had silvery white hair, and white teeth that laughed out of his dark face. He drank gin with bitters (Angostura), and smoked several fascinating pipes, stuffing them with tobacco out of a soft green pouch. By the time I knew him, he had long retired. He surfaced at 5:00 a.m., almost before the sun, and drank his tea, while my grandmother did her morning puja. When she finished, and she'd drunk her tea, he did the "bazaar", then returned home to have breakfast - tea, toast, butter, jam, cheese, fruits. Whenever I had breakfast with them, he cut my toast (pink with lightly spread jam) into tiny pieces - more fun to eat.

Every afternoon, after their siesta, my grandparents would drink afternoon tea (with Britannia Marie biscuits) in their verandah (1 floor above our's), where they had made their peace with the noise of traffic that often prevented them from hearing people at the door. If I went up in the afternoons, I would have to hammer on the verandah door leading off from the dark cool landing, sometimes for up to 15 minutes before they heard me and let me into the cool-warmth of the balcony, afternoon sun sloping through the grills, my grandmother slowly perspiring flakes of Ponds dreamflower talc like snow against her white skin.

Of course, I bonded primarily with my grandfather. He was more fun. He took me swimming. We walked together to the park every day, where he waited and watched while I quarrelled with other kids to take rides on the huge elephant-trunk slide and see how high I could take the swing, then bought us groundnuts (roasted in their shells, that you had to snap open to reach the warm red-brown nuts) and chocolate on the walk home. I sat on his lap all evening, watching TV with them (we didn't have a TV at home, 1 floor down). He got me my first dog - a puppy that someone picked off the road - and kept it for me when my parents refused to let it into the house.

My grandmother was another story altogether. She wore thick glasses that magnified her eyes to about 5 times their normal size. And against her short and generous build, and unbelievably white skin, they seemed a hundred times more frightening. She scowled and scolded a lot more, she frowned over huge boiling pots in the kitchen (eventually producing the world's most delicious dishes) and told me not to "sit like that" and "do that" and constantly reminded me of what ladies should and shouldn't do (and mostly, what I did wasn't ladylike). She pushed me to the end of my short temper, and didn't allow my beloved dog into her puja room (but didn't god make him too?). But in the soporific heat-drugged afternoons, after her hectic mornings of directing the cooking and putting away the bazaar and scolding and scowling and frowning, she sat on the sofa reading, her starched cotton sari limp from the heat and her sweat and smelling faintly of talcum powder. And when I deigned to lie on the sofa, head on her lap, she told me stories - about avatars and rakshasas and gods and kings. Greek and Roman mythology, I read in Tales From Long Ago. Indian mythology, I heard from her, begging her to tell me that particular story again and again and again, drifting off to sleep in the familiarity of the words, the genial comfort of her lap, to be awoken for afternoon tea at 4:30.

My grandfather was tall, dark, handsome; my grandmother - short, fair and once, quite a stunner. I can close my eyes and see them still, sitting there in the cane chairs (that once were rusty-red, until someone had them painted a hideous sky blue), in the still afternoon, drinking their tea and watching as the world goes by, the traffic roaring by their windows (three floors up from the road), the dust settling more and more firmly around them.

The house now seems empty without them. For days after my grandmother passed away - just over a year after my grandfather - we felt like peas rattling around in an empty can, intentionally increasing decibel level to fill up the unfillable emptiness their absence left behind, moping over a pair of spectacles, an expression captured on film, the contents of of a dressing table as familar to me as the palm of my hand. A briefcase, a stool, the view from the verandah, and inside my head, my grandparents drinking their tea in the noise and thrust of an ever-lasting summer afternoon.


Raccoon said...

Hey Ps

GREAt!...I almost found myself missing your grandparents...:)

do you know what the firangs meant by dark in tall dark and handsome? they meant someone who had dark hair...almost the mills and boonish types...:)

progga said...

Thanks, PS. High praise. :)

Yeah, I know that tall-dark-handsome is a rather firangi concept. But what the hey... it fit, literally.
And since when have you been reading mills-and-boons?!

Anonymous said...

Brought back fond memories. And misty eyes.
- J